Teaching Young People Philosophy: Background information when reading Four for the Road

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Four for the Road

by K J. Reilly

Four for the Road by K J. Reilly X
Four for the Road by K J. Reilly
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2022, 288 pages

    Aug 2023, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jane McCormack
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About this Book

Teaching Young People Philosophy

This article relates to Four for the Road

Print Review

Question mark drawn in chalk on pavement above a pair of black-and-white sneakers In K.J. Reilly's coming-of-age novel Four for the Road, main character Asher Hunting is fortunate to have an insightful sidekick to advise him. Will has suffered loss just as Asher has, but Will presents as more equipped to navigate his way through his grief. Early on in the book, Will recites Kierkegaard to Asher, noting that the philosopher believed that "everyone suffers from a deep kind of despair over their existence." While Will's uttering could be dismissed as nerdiness or quirkiness, and it might seem strange to some that a teenager would steep himself in abstruse schools of thought, the study of philosophy may be just what young people need.

At various critical moments in the work, Will is able to reason with Asher regarding his reckless plot to kill Jack Daniels, the drunken truck driver who killed Asher's mother in an automobile accident. Whether Will is spouting pop-culture philosophies from The Godfather or adages from Oprah, he is able to steer Asher away from poor decisions. Research backs Will's approach. A study done by psychologists in Scotland found that giving children lessons in philosophical inquiry results in "persistent, long-term cognitive benefits." Life coach Christian Salafia explains, "Children who study philosophy grow into being more creative adults; they're more capable of handling problems in the workplace, in their relationships, and in life in general. Studying philosophy teaches them how to think, how to separate valid from invalid arguments, and how to effectively communicate with other people." Although at times Will seems to be speaking in metaphorical riddles, he is actually forcing Asher to use his critical thinking skills to question his possible actions, as well as the undoubtedly catastrophic results of those actions.

Will's words of wisdom, or as Asher refers to them, "Will-isms," force Asher to reason out his intentions, actions and consequences. This thought process also confronts the morality of his scheme to murder Jack Daniels: How will it affect Grace, Jack Daniels' daughter? How will it affect Asher's own family? This act of questioning is at the very heart of philosophy. PLATO, the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization, which provides resources for educators who want to include philosophy in their curriculum, asserts that "conversations about their deeper questions are important for young people because they foster reasoned reflection. Philosophy sessions create an open environment for examining difficult topics thoughtfully and imaginatively." This is how Will functions within the orchestration of Reilly's novel. He fosters reasoned reflection for Asher and thus saves him from himself.

Philosophy instruction can begin as early as elementary school, as children's books provide fodder for discussion and inquiry quite organically. A New York Times article reflects on how the onset of the pandemic spawned a number of online groups and projects focused on helping children delve into philosophy, grappling with questions ranging from the importance of schools, to life and death.

Jacqueline Woodson, who has written children's and young adult books such as Brown Girl Dreaming, explains how a change in circumstances can prompt young people to think differently, noting, "The pandemic offers them a chance to look up and look out and see what's going on, it's a chance to talk about death, a chance to talk about what it means to live with intention and to be part of a greater good." She concurs with the premise that philosophy should be taught at a young age, observing, "Kids are deep thinkers." Some of those in favor of philosophy in schools feel as though the art of exploring life's larger questions expands a child's ability to be confident, and in a world that is in many ways becoming increasingly difficult for young people to navigate, isn't that what we all hope for?

Chalk question mark on pavement. Photo by Ann H, via Pexels

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Jane McCormack

This "beyond the book article" relates to Four for the Road. It originally ran in October 2022 and has been updated for the August 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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